As you’ve likely heard if you work in the biosciences, the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT just won a big patent battle over the revolutionary gene editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9. The ruling awards patents for using the technique in mammalian cells — including to develop new therapies for disease —to the Broad and its acclaimed researcher Feng Zhang.
That’s grim news for their cross-country rival, the University of California, where equally acclaimed biochemist Jennifer Doudna first figured out how to use CRISPR to edit DNA (but not in live cells).
The biggest winner of the day is clearly the Broad Institute, which “landed a knockout punch” with Wednesday’s ruling, according to Jacob Sherkow of New York Law School.
But there are other winners — and losers. Here’s our (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) scorecard:
Last year, Broad Institute President Eric Lander published a paean to the “heroes” of CRISPR. His piece conspicuously minimized the role played by women of science — including Doudna and her collaborator, Emmanuelle Charpentier. That didn’t go unnoticed. Lander took so much heat that STAT wrote a piece headlined, “Why Eric Lander morphed from science god to punching bag.” But history — or at least, the patent court — may have vindicated him. A little.
There are already grumblings that Zhang got the edge because the Broad paid the patent office for a fast track review — and not necessarily because his work was so revolutionary, compared to what Doudna et al accomplished. Either way, the bitter patent dispute may have soured the mood in some research labs, suggested Barbara Schaal, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “What you worry about in the long term is, does this dampen the enthusiasm that people have for patents?” she said. “How does that affect the overall community? Because it is very, very contentious and people are extremely emotional about it.”
Winner: The Nobel Prize committee
It’ll be fun to decide who, precisely, merits the inevitable CRISPR Nobel. The winner of the seminal patent doesn’t necessarily win the award, so the vaunted prize committee will get to make its own judgment call. And it’ll be closely watched. Historically, this particular institution tends to neglect scientists who are female. The CRISPR prize could be a chance to right that wrong.
Loser: Other prize committees
Doudna and Charpentier landed a number of top awards in recent years, including the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in the life sciences, for their contributions to gene editing. Zhang? Not so much. Which means the folks who dole out prizes — and prize money — may be ruing their decisions.
Winner: Tennis balls
In a teleconference addressing the patent outcome, Doudna tried to put a positive spin on the ruling, saying the Broad has “a patent on green tennis balls,” whereas the University of California has “a patent on all tennis balls.” That didn’t make a whole lot of sense to the many folks mulling the analogy on social media. On the other hand, by this logic, there could be a whole rainbow of other tennis balls out there to patent, each of them putting CRISPR to use in a novel way.
Loser: Investors (some of them)
Losers in the business world, at least temporarily, include CRISPR Therapeutics, Intellia Therapeutics, Caribou Biosciences, and ERS Genomics — all small biotech companies that have licensed the patents held by Charpentier and Doudna. The stock price for both Intellia and CRISPR Therapeutics dropped nearly 10 percent on the day. On the other hand, Editas Medicine, which is using Zhang’s technology, enjoyed a stock jump of nearly 30 percent on the patent news.
Tens of millions have been poured into the CRISPR patent battle already — and if UC appeals, attorneys will make oodles more. Then again, given the tennis ball quote, lawyers will likely be kept busy even if there isn’t an appeal, as UC appears intent on making researchers pay to license its CRISPR patents for an array of applications, even in mammalian cells. That could well spark another court fight.